Layleen Polanco is a 27-year-old Afro-Latina transgender woman who was found dead last Friday in the notorious Rikers Island jail in New York. The cause of her death has not been identified and released but what is horrifying is that she was in prison because she could not pay the $500 bail for her misdemeanor charge. What is even worse is that she was in solitary confinement at the time, a form of punishment that creates such severe psychological trauma that it has been deemed to be torture.
There are so many things wrong here. As Natasha Lennard writes:
These sparse details alone are enough to know that Polanco’s death sits at the intersection of some of the criminal justice system’s worst excesses: the criminalization of sex workers and the policing of trans women of color that it entails; the cash bail system; the use of solitary confinement; and the fact that institutions like Rikers exist at all.
“Layleen’s interactions with the criminal legal system exemplify the ways in which our state sanctions violence against trans and gender non-confirming communities of color,” said a statement from Decrim NY, a coalition working toward the full decriminalization of consensual sex work in New York state. “Polanco’s death was caused by an all-too-common overlap of three aspects of the criminal legal system: She was criminalized for sex work. She was held on $500 bail for misdemeanor charges. And she was placed in solitary confinement.”
In April, the New York State Legislature passed a bill to end cash bail for most misdemeanor and low-level offenses, but the law doesn’t go into effect until January 2020. Polanco’s death highlighted the urgency of abolishing the cash bail system nationwide and ensuring that such laws are properly enacted.
That a judge, knowing full well that legislation had been passed to end cash bail for these offenses, would nonetheless incarcerate a person like Polanco for failing to pay bail speaks to the cruelty of judicial discretion.
Transgender women — particularly transgender women of color — disproportionately turn to sex work, in the face of grave discrimination in other industries. Analysis by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey in 2015 found that of 6,400 transgender individuals asked, 40 percent of black or black multiracial respondents and 33 percent of Latinx-identified respondents had participated in the sex trade.
Police nationwide have made a habit of targeting trans women of color for prostitution arrests, stings, and bogus charges like “loitering for prostitution.”
It may be that authorities placed Polanco in solitary confinement because they feared that a transgender person was at risk if placed among other prisoners, given the deep hostility, discrimination, harassment, and violence leading to even death faced by members of that community. But solitary confinement is not the answer to that problem and indeed should never be the answer to any problem. If there is a danger to a detainee, they can be placed in protective custody where conditions can be made much more humane.
But the real point is that Polanco should never have been in any jail in the first place, not for her ‘offense’ which should not be an offense and not for not being able to come up with the cash bail, let alone be in Rikers, a jail that, as John Surico writes, has a notorious reputation as being the worst in America and a ‘hellhole’ that is beyond redemption and should be shut down completely.
The jail’s problems are well-known and longstanding: bureaucratic brutality, corruption, pain and injury inflicted upon inmates who have not even been convicted of committing a crime. In August 2014, when his office released a scathing investigation of the jail, US Attorney Preet Bharara wrote that a “deep-seated culture of violence” is embedded in the very fabric of Rikers.
You have to read the full article to fully apppreciate how horrifying Rikers is. As Surico emphasizes, such horrific conditions exist in a place that houses people who have yet to be found guilty of any crime but are merely awaiting trial.
But Polanco was sent there and now she is dead. And the (in)justice system in the US can notch up yet another victim of its cruelty.